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World War II -- 60 Years After: The Former Yugoslav Legacy

  • Patrick Moore

The Axis occupation of former Yugoslavia and the domestic reaction to it present a complex picture. The legacy of these experiences has still not been completely overcome.

The German-led onslaught on the Kingdom of Yugoslavia began on 6 April 1941 and ended with that country's capitulation 11 days later. Known from 1918 to 1929 as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, the Serbian-dominated state did not make a serious effort to remove the sources of its main domestic problem, namely Croatian discontent, until 1939. In that year, the Belgrade authorities cut a deal with Vlado Macek of the Croatian Peasant Party (HSS), which held the political loyalties of most Croats. That agreement, which gave Croatia wide autonomy, proved to be too little, too late to overcome Croatian distaste for the Yugoslav state, which was a factor in its rapid collapse.

Many Slovenes, however, regarded Yugoslavia as their guarantee against domination and assimilation by their German- and Italian-speaking neighbors, and Slovenian politicians held office in successive interwar Belgrade cabinets. Unlike the Slovenes, the Bosnian Muslims were not explicitly recognized as a distinct people separate from Serbs or Croats, but their politicians proved to be as good at coalition politics as were the Slovenes and were well represented in Belgrade cabinets. (The Slovenes and Bosnian Muslims would later display those same skills in communist Yugoslavia under Josip Broz Tito.)

The Macedonians and Montenegrins were simply regarded as Serbs, whether they liked it or not. There were large Hungarian and German minorities in Vojvodina and parts of eastern Slavonia, while Albanians lived in Kosova and western Macedonia. These three large non-Slavic minority groups were subject to pressures from Belgrade's policy of encouraging Serbian colonization in minority areas, which proceeded with varying degrees of success.

Interwar Yugoslavia's principal foreign-policy problems centered on fending off Italian claims on parts of Dalmatia, Bulgarian ambitions in Macedonia, and Hungarian aspirations in Vojvodina. The Italians' rivals in Dalmatia were Croats, but there were no real issues dividing Italians and Serbs.

All these chickens came home to roost after April 1941. Germany and the other Axis powers had three broad goals: to acquire territory and implement their respective ethnic or racial policies, to break the power of the Serbian state, and to exploit Yugoslavia's human and material resources for the war effort. Germany, Italy, and Hungary partitioned Slovenia between them. Croatia became the so-called Independent State of Croatia (NDH) after losing chunks of Dalmatia to Italy but acquiring Bosnia-Herzegovina. The NDH was led by Ante Pavelic of the fascist Ustasha (Insurgent) movement, which enjoyed Italian and Hungarian support as an emigre terrorist group before the war but which the Germans initially shunned in order to cut a deal with Macek. When he declined, the Nazis accepted Pavelic as the next best alternative.

The NDH was divided along a northwest to southeast line into German and Italian spheres of influence. The Germans and Italians were formally allies, but there were rivalries between them that the locals soon learned to manipulate. In particular, "Italian-held territory became a haven for Serbs," as Anglo-Serbian historian Stevan K. Pavlowitch has written.

Italy annexed Kosova and western Macedonia to Albania, which Benito Mussolini already controlled, and occupied Montenegro. Although the Germans had clear policy aims and a staff that included many former Austro-Hungarian Balkan experts, Rome's goals were vague beyond its territorial claims in Slovenia and Dalmatia. Hence the Italians sought to keep order by cultivating Montenegrin and Albanian nationalisms, with varying degrees of success.

Hungary acquired its slice of Slovenia and parts of Vojvodina, the rest of which went to Germany. Bulgaria took most of Macedonia and stretches of eastern Serbia, but the Germans reserved Belgrade and the Serbian heartland for themselves. They utilized the support of local Serbian fascists at times, but made it clear that Serbia was an occupied territory firmly under the Nazi heel, to be treated accordingly.

The Germans lost little time in implementing their racial policies, especially in Serbia and the NDH. Jews, Gypsies, political opponents of the Axis, and -- especially in the HDH -- Serbs were killed by the tens of thousands. The exact number remains a topic of dispute to this day, but there is no doubt about the occupiers' intentions and thoroughness. They were assisted by Ustasha zealots after elevating the Croats to Aryan racial status. Pavelic, in turn, solved the thorny problem of how to dominate Bosnia with its only roughly 20 percent Croat population by taking the advice of the 19th century Croatian nationalist politician Ante Starcevic and treating as Croats the Muslims, who made up over 40 percent of the total population.

In the end, however, Axis control in Bosnia was chiefly limited to population centers and communications lines. The resistance in Bosnia and elsewhere was often local in character and motivated primarily by survival. Sometimes tacit or negotiated understandings were arrived at between the Axis and the local resistance, particularly in the Italian zone. Adding to the complexity was the fact that the Ustashe and the two main resistance groups alike all had command and control problems over their often widely scattered followers.

Those two best-known resistance forces were the remnants of the royal Yugoslav Army under General Draza Mihailovic and the communist-led Partisans under Josip Broz Tito, who declared himself a marshal. Mihailovic was linked to the London-based exile government and headed what came to be known as the Ravna Gora Chetnik (member of an armed band) movement. His problems were that his forces were Serbian rather than Yugoslav in scope, and that fear of retribution under the Germans' policy of 100 Serbs killed for every German led his forces into inaction or collaboration. The collaboration became more pronounced as his other enemies, the Partisans, gained in strength, prompting some Chetniks to consider the Germans as the lesser of the two evils. For that reason, the Western Allies eventually broke with Mihailovic and switched their support to Tito, whom they considered the one leader who would fight the Axis.

Postwar communist propaganda would glorify the Partisans as wise, tough, and heroic, but they were often subject to the same pressures as Mihailovic. They did not, moreover, begin fighting until after Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 -- at least two months after the fall of Yugoslavia -- although they later tried to claim otherwise. They, too, were not beyond collaboration if the circumstances required it, as a famous photo of one of Tito's top aides leaving a German headquarters in Zagreb attests.

But the Partisans had a clear advantage over other resistance forces in that they were all-Yugoslav in character. They launched a political program for a federal socialist Yugoslavia, which appealed to many people of various nationalities. The communists recognized the Macedonians as a distinct people with a right to their own republic, which won the Partisans many adherents among those Macedonians who found that Bulgarian rule was no better than Serbian had been.

Four major international developments hastened the communist victory. One was the capitulation of Italy in September 1943, which brought the Partisans not only territory but a bonanza of Italian weapons and even some Italian communist volunteers. The second factor was the switch in late 1943 of Western Allied support from Mihailovic to Tito, which assured Tito of co-belligerent status as well as military supplies. (The Soviets provided little or no assistance until the Red Army arrived in late 1944). The third development was the gradual withdrawal of the Germans from the Balkans in 1944 as they sought to shore up the defense of Germany. This enabled the Partisans to consolidate their gains and turn on their internal foes. The fourth element was the arrival of the Red Army and the Partisans in Belgrade in October 1944, which took out much of the Germans' remaining punch.

The end of the war in Europe in May 1945 saw Tito's Partisans in control of most of Yugoslavia. While Tito is best remembered abroad for his relatively liberal communism from the 1950s onward, he began his rule as "Stalin's best pupil" and introduced time-honored Bolshevik methods of taking and consolidating power, killing tens of thousands of real or imagined enemies. Indeed, when Stalin expelled Yugoslavia from the Soviet bloc in 1948, it was not because Tito was soft or revisionist but because he insisted on making his own decisions based on what he saw as his own interests.

The Partisans exacted brutal retribution against the indigenous German, Italian, Hungarian, and Albanian populations. In the cases of the Germans and Italians in particular, most of those who were not killed by the Partisans or did not flee were expelled, including the "Schwaben" from Vojvodina and the Italians from Dalmatia and Istria, whose families had lived in those areas for centuries.

The troubled continuing legacy of World War II throughout former Yugoslavia stems from two interrelated problems. First, the conflict was often a classic civil war that pitched brother against brother, father against son, friend against friend, and neighbor against neighbor. Although the communists during their 45-year rule portrayed the war in heroic terms as a struggle of good against evil, in fact there were few cases of black or white but many shades of gray. In Slovenia and Croatia, for example, the communists branded as enemies and killed not only dedicated fascists but also young conscripts who had little choice but to don Axis uniforms. The killings were often carried out in summary fashion without any attempt to separate real enemies from confused conscripts or to properly treat the defeated forces as prisoners of war, even after the formal end of hostilities.

The second problem was that the communists tolerated no interpretation of the conflict and those involved in it other than their own. As a result, painful issues could not be put to rest by open discussion or independent investigation for over 45 years, if at all. Instead, accounts of what happened in specific cases were circulated privately among individual families or close friends, reinforcing pre-existing perceptions of the truth.

Only after the fall of communism could those on the losing side call for truth and justice and seek an investigation of communist atrocities. This was far from easy, because in societies divided by the war's legacies, many people -- particularly those with ties to the communists -- argued that there is no point in raising issues that would only polarize the nation. Slovenia is an excellent example of this, but scarcely the only one.

In the meantime, each person or family knows what the war meant to them. There is the Serbian professor from Herzegovina, who quietly told his American student in the 1970s: "I hid in a tree as a boy and watched how the Ustashe killed over 30 members of my family before my eyes. I then escaped to the Partisans, who took me as a messenger. They and that tree saved me." Or the Herzegovinian Croat shopkeeper who whispered to the same American: "You study history. Remember that it is the victor who always writes history." Or the 20-something Serb from Nis, who tearfully told that American only recently: "The communists systematically discriminated against my entire family for five decades just because my grandfather was one of Draza's Chetniks. We had nothing under the communists -- no right to study, no free access to medical care, no pensions. Can you imagine the poverty we knew? What I know as a result of all this is that my family are all Chetniks, and I am a Chetnik."
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